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Originally published November 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 13, 2007 at 1:50 PM

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Early volunteers turned away from working on Bay Area oil spill

When a shipping accident last week dumped 58,000 gallons of oil in San Francisco Bay, creating the region's biggest oil spill in nearly...

The Christian Science Monitor

Bay Area spill

Where: San Francisco Bay

Amount: 58,000 gallons

Recovered: More than 12,000 gallons

Damage: 511 oiled birds collected; 403 have died.

The Christian Science Monitor

MARIN HEADLANDS, Calif. -- When a shipping accident last week dumped 58,000 gallons of oil in San Francisco Bay, creating the region's biggest oil spill in nearly two decades, it washed onto shores that are home to a great concentration of America's environmentalists.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that volunteers poured forth to help -- yet officials still seemed flummoxed when it happened.

Callers overwhelmed a volunteer hotline within an hour. Public meetings devolved at times into heated exchanges when officials told would-be volunteers essentially "Don't call us, we'll call you" if their help was needed.

And other residents armed with rubber gloves and pooper-scoopers stormed the closed beaches, calling their oil-cleanup work a form of "civil disobedience."

Officials want volunteers off beaches, citing concerns about public health and the safety of frightened wildlife, but some residents question whether the coastline can be cleaned quickly without more help.

It is indicative of a national lack of planning for volunteers during crisis, say experts.

"People doing crisis-management planning who don't understand that there will be volunteers -- they aren't doing crisis-management planning," says Susan Ellis, president of Energize, a consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism.

Authorities have their hands full with the spill, from the oil-soaked birds to the miles of fouled coastline to the questions.

The Cosco Busan, a cargo ship bound for South Korea, ruptured one of its tanks when it hit the Bay Bridge in the fog Wednesday, dumping sticky, heavy bunker fuel into the bay.

The ship was roped to a tugboat at the time of the collision, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The tug, an added layer of safety that was not required, apparently was not asked -- or may have been unable -- to steer the vessel clear of the bridge in time.

With the cause of the accident still a mystery, the tug's inability to prevent the collision could indicate that the pilot and crew didn't realize the ship was dangerously off course, experts said Monday.

"The tug works at the direction of the pilot. Judging from what I've heard about the radio transmissions, it sounded like he thought he was where he wanted to be," said Capt. Peter McIsaac, port agent for the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association in San Francisco.

Visibility was only 300 feet because of fog, the Coast Guard said.

Ever since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, state law has required all oil tankers to have tug escorts through San Francisco Bay to push or pull them away from trouble if they have other problems.

Cargo ships and chemical tankers are not required to have tug escorts. But larger cargo ships often do to help them stay in the narrow shipping channel between Oakland and the Bay Bridge, said Commodore John Keever of the U.S. Maritime Service.

"I would suggest that they didn't know they were going to hit the bridge. They didn't realize they were so close," said Keever, vice president of the California Maritime Academy.

That could have been because of human error, or mechanical failure, he said.

Michael Anderson, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, would not comment on the tug or whether the captain gave it orders to try to prevent the collision, saying it was part of an ongoing investigation.

The spill has raised fresh questions about the changing mission of the U.S. Coast Guard, with critics Monday saying the agency's new homeland security duties have eroded its ability to tackle such environmental disasters.

In recent years, Coast Guard staff and institutional emphasis have been shifted toward port- and coastal-protection duties rather than marine safety and environmental response. Meanwhile, important equipment used in spill response has aged, insiders say, and training drills -- routine after the Valdez disaster -- are fewer and farther between.

Coast Guard officials have defended their efforts, saying they launched a decisive spill response. But they also have acknowledged that they failed to grasp the magnitude of the spill -- originally thought to be only 140 gallons -- or to make a timely report to local officials and the public, who remained largely in the dark after the accident.

If errors were made, "we'll be held accountable," said Rear Admiral Craig Bone, the Coast Guard's top officer in California. "We're responsible. And we'll make the changes that need to be made."

Over the weekend, the National Transportation Safety Board took over the accident investigation from the Coast Guard and promised to review the initial response. The U.S. attorney in San Francisco also has stepped in to see if civil or criminal charges are warranted.

The investigation has focused on human error. But an attorney for Capt. John Cota, the local mariner assigned to pilot the ship out of the bay, said Monday that the radar was broken down. In addition, the ship's captain -- who ceded control of the vessel to Cota in the bay -- provided incorrect information from the navigation system, the attorney said.

"He was left hanging out there in the fog," said the attorney, John Meadows of San Francisco.

The guard, meanwhile, remains under fire from politicians and the media in the San Francisco region, where the Sierra Club has its headquarters -- as well as 55,000 card-carrying members -- and where the namesake bay represents an embodiment of the environmental ethos.

More than 12,000 gallons of oil had been recovered by Monday, but much never will be, the Coast Guard said. Some will evaporate or dissipate and be absorbed into the environment.

Cleanup efforts continued, with 1,048 people working on the spill response. So far, 545 live oiled birds have been collected -- many of them grebes, scoters and various types of sea ducks -- 34 of which have died, according to wildlife rescue teams with the University of California-Davis. Another 369 dead birds have been collected.

Although oil continued to wash up along the Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Marin shorelines, the South Bay and its sensitive wetlands appeared to have been spared.

Information from The Christian Science Monitor, San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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